Senate passes USA Freedom Act, limiting NSA surveillance powers

Legislative efforts intended to reform aspects of the United States intelligence community’s surveillance operations have cleared Congress and are expected to be signed into law imminently by President Obama.

The Senate voted 67-32 on Tuesday in favor of the USA Freedom Act, adopting the same version of the bill that had overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives last month by 338-88.

Backers of the USA Freedom Act say the bill ends the bulk collection of telephone call records by the National Security Agency as revealed in 2013 by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, as well as brings reform to the secret court that oversees surveillance requests and increases transparency.

Passage of the bill signals “the first major overhaul of government surveillance laws in decades,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said on the Senate floor following Tuesday’s vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), an adamant critic of the bill up until the moment Tuesday’s vote occurred, had unsuccessfully tried earlier in the day to tack on amendments that opponents said would have weakened efforts to reform the nation’s surveillance operations. Had McConnell’s amendments been accepted by the Senate, then the new version of the USA Freedom Act would have had to go back to the House to be voted again, further delaying passage.

With the Senate’s passage of the “clean” reform bill that’s already cleared the House, the USA Freedom Act is expected to soon end up on the desk of President Barack Obama and be signed into law.

McConnell sarcastically touted passage of the bill on Tuesday as being “a resounding victory for Edward Snowden,” the contractor who two years earlier had provided the press with top-secret documents concerning the NSA’s surveillance programs, and said that absence of the phone records collection program will harm America’s counterterrorism efforts.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the NSA’s metadata collection will be reined in and electronic communication providers will now be required to hold onto call records instead of the intelligence community. Additionally, the court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA court, will be subject to new reforms that have until now allowed the panel to operate under a shroud of secrecy.

“Technology users everywhere should celebrate, knowing that the NSA will be a little more hampered in its surveillance overreach, and both the NSA and the FISA court will be more transparent and accountable than it was before the USA Freedom Act,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said upon passage of the bill on Tuesday.

READ MORE: USA Freedom Act vs expired Patriot Act provisions: How do the spy laws differ?

Earlier this week on Sunday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued a statement urging the Senate to act swiftly in passing the USA Freedom Act because the administration had determined the latest edition of the bill “struck a reasonable compromise balancing security and privacy—allowing us to continue to protect the country while implementing various reforms, including prohibiting bulk collection through the use of Section 215, FISA pen registers and National Security Letters.”

Section 215 of the Patriot Act – the post-9/11 counterterrorism legislation signed by Pres. George W. Bush after the 2001 terrorist attacks – had up until recently authorized the NSA to collect telephone call records in bulk of millions of American citizens regardless of whether or not they’ve been suspected of any wrongdoing. Sec. 215 authorities expired on Monday without being renewed, days after a federal appeals court said that it did not think the Patriot Act was ever intended to let the intelligence community collect data on innocent citizens.